The voters of Waterbury must take this year’s municipal election very seriously. In deciding whom to entrust with the management of our city, they must look critically not only at the current 3-term administration, but at several preceding ones. Then, they ought to ask themselves, “HOW DID WE GET INTO THIS MESS AND HOW SHALL WE FACE
THE FUTURE?”. Every one of us is, consciously or subconsciously, facing this dilemma.
Increasingly we, the residents, have been deprived of the right of participation. On the city administration side the responsibility for decisions has been getting more convoluted, in spite of assurances of transparency. In the Rep-Am comics section of 8/17/2007 there was a Non Sequitur cartoon, showing the “Full Disclosure C.E.O.”, seated grinning behind his desk, which is adorned only by a sign stating, “The Buck Stops at a Much Lower Level”. Think about it.
My comments will not deal with persuading the reader to vote for a specific political party or candidate. One of the few rights we can still exercise without political reprisals is the right to vote for whomever we choose. The standard statement of aspiring and incumbent politicians is wrapped around, “I believe that such and such should be done….” Watch out! There is a lot of difference between believing in something and constructively acting on it. There is the tooth fairy for instance….
Waterbury must look squarely at its future. We must not expect miracles as far as revenues are concerned. If anything, they will shrink in the face of rising costs. The key will be a frugal approach, based on leadership and efficiency, to accomplish most with limited means. Remember the New England adage, “Use it up / Wear it out / Make it do / Or do without”.
The city administration we should vote in is one capable of determination to zero-in on essential projects and assuming the responsibility for their completion, rather than dissipating funds and energy on wishful multitude. In this structure, the mayor would have to take on the leadership, as well as responsibility for turning the city on a new course, away from the decaying tradition of accommodating the “usual suspects”, who have been turning up under successive administrations, switching from center stage to the back stage.
Under the Giordano administration we had been the willing victims of our failure to recognize the need for revaluation and taxation changes. So, we happily trotted along while the city’s retirement funds were being depleted and debts were being incurred. Eventually, the city faced imminent bankruptcy. The result was a state imposed Oversight Board which became the 800 pound gorilla behind mayor Jarjura. Jointly, after an investment in studies etc. they have brought our city out of the muck, leaving it emaciated on the edge. I concede that it has been a major effort; the cost, however, has been very high. As far as a contribution to the future, the only net achievement has been to make Waterbury viable again as a borrower. We still are hundreds of millions of dollars short in the retirement fund and other debts.
As humans, we have different perceptions of what we approve of; they do not always agree with the reality. Ultimately, however, we have to form a decision based on the latter. My comments, like it or not, will not be based on a political party affiliation.
Economy. Since the cleanup of the former Scovill site and construction of the Brass Mill Mall, Waterbury has not originated any major tax contributing facilities. It takes a lot of time to conceive and execute such a project. The idea first surfaced around 1989 during the Santopietro administration. The financing was worked out during 1993 – 1994 during the Bergin administration. This was followed by political and legal haggling, with the Mall finally opening in the fall of 1997, early in the Giordano administration. The cost was in excess of thirty million dollars (I do not have the exact number). Both the Mall and the adjoining Brass Mill Commons have been contributing to the city’s tax revenues.
Starting in 1998, the state footed the bill for the Downtown Redevelopment. This comprised projects such as the restoration of the Palace Theater, Spring Street ramparage, UConn Campus and the Arts Magnet School. The cost, based on figures in the “Memorandum of Understanding” (Oversight Board, 7/1/2003) amounted to around $190 million. Roughly $4.5 million were spent on Bank Street reconstruction and the wiring for the Information Technology Zone (ITZ). In practical terms, that investment has not brought the city any tax revenue and only resulted in added spending. ITZ has become defunct for all intents and purposes.
NVDC was in charge of both the Mall and Downtown projects. The input from residents was allowed on some cosmetic aspects. When the residents attempted to get the administration to exert some claims on city’s rights to the Palace Theater, the Oversight Board rudely rebuked them.
The retail commerce along the “Magic Mile” on Wolcott Street has developed on its own, without any initiative from the city administrations. In fact, business activity had been dying out and the revival started with the purchase and redevelopment of the defunct Naugatuck Valley Mall by Starwood – Ceruzzi LLC in 1999. The housing boom had started under Santopietro administration, resulting in scandalous excesses. It then fizzled out, only to explode into activity under own power. Here again, the city did not offer any initiatives.
Consecutive administrations have bungled industrial development, hampering it by taxation and plain interference. Lack of leadership, foresight and imagination have caused delays resulting in missed opportunities. ITZ, if timely implemented and marketed, might have succeeded. As is, some 3 million dollars have been wasted on the project. The LesCare plant project was grossly mishandled; chances are that Mr. Lestorti might have succeeded if he had stayed in the city. Waterbury has been losing industrial establishments and tax revenues to neighboring towns. The Yankeegas LNG storage facility will take a few years to fully contribute to the tax base; as far as the “mini” electric power plant is concerned, it is still only a proposal.
A tax incentive plan is now being contemplated by the Board of Aldermen to attract new business (Rep-Am of 8/30/07) – probably too late again, because of the global competition. Also, the uncertainty surrounding the I-84 / Rt.8 project will hamper potential industrial interest in the city. Here again, the next administration will have to show initiative and leadership.
Maintenance of city properties has been disastrous, largely due to ineptness and lack of control.
During the Giordano administration, in 1998, the city had to bond $8.1 million for street maintenance and reconstruction. Some of the intended work, like the Pearl Lake Road, is still up in the air, in 2007! Also, in 1998 the city bonded $22.1 million for school repairs and upgrades; while most of the work was allegedly done (ref. my article in OBSERVER of June 2003), I doubt that the city has implemented a durable maintenance plan. This was overshadowed by the bonding of $101.5 million (the state would, allegedly, reimburse $78.65 million)for new schools and improvements. Then we have had the City Hall issue which could have been averted by systematic maintenance. Now we have bonded $36 million for the restoration; by the time the “usual suspects” will have finished with it, the amount will probably double and the Chase Buildings will be falling apart. Already some money will be siphoned off for roof repairs.
Our education problems have been depressing. Excuses for the poor performance at our public schools are both plentiful and tearful. If Kaynor Tech can succeed, so should the public schools. Blaming poverty, single parents etc. cannot be an excuse for functional illiteracy. We need leaders willing to risk being politically incorrect, who could persuade community organizations to demand practical education. Our legislators should not only try to get grants, but also call for reforms.
Our brownfields rehabilitation has been a farce. The present site of the Brass Mills Mall is the last brownfield remediated in the city. That was over a decade ago! The Mattatuck Mfg. site has been “worked on” for nearly fifteen years; the cleanup has not been completed yet, after an investment of close to $2.5 million and it looks like it may be practically given away. I reviewed this sordid brownfield mess in the January 2007 OBSERVER. It is an absolute shame that, for so many years nothing has been accomplished. Millions of dollars have been spent on pie-in-the-sky cleanup projects. The latest is the site intended for the proposed power plant on South Main. Watch them milk it!
The start of the “urgent” new schools project is still pending, two years after bonding. Now, the intended North End site is suspected of being a brownfield (Rep-Am of 9/5/2007)! The Brooklyn site is still being mulled over. Where does this place the architectural design and construction preparation schedule? OOPS again! Remember the tearful concerns about the effect of rising costs when the taxpayers hesitated to approve the bonding? Does WDC miss paychecks because of delays?
Now, going back to the economy issue. We must not be misled by the talk of the city and state surpluses. Let’s look at what we, as a city, are in for. Our tax base has not grown. The housing boom is petering out; we may end up with many an excavated site with a “For Sale” sign. Unfortunately, this is where the national trend is headed; Waterbury has been in better shape so far than many cities and towns. Unfortunately, it will be some time before new housing will have any effect on the tax base. As demand for building materials dwindles, so will orders, affecting many suppliers and small industries. Our pending construction projects, such as new schools and the City Hall, have not started and, even when completed years from now, will be budget drains anyway. Waterbury is still paying for the fiscal mismanagement under the Giordano administration and will do so for decades to come.
City Charter. Since 2001 the city administration has been hard at work at giving almost autocratic powers to the mayor. The City Charter has been revised to benefit “the good mayor”; we, the electorate, have been told that it is up to us to elect one. In other words, “Shut up and don’t complain…” Ordinances have been crafted to give the mayor more powers. Residents should look carefully at the results.
Not that things had been idyllic before that. In his heydays mayor Giordano would strut into the Aldermanic Chamber and gaze imperiously and intimidatingly at the majority side of the aisle. His majority leader would conduct the proceedings with pit bull ferocity, cowing any opposition. Complex budget spending would be covered by a single line.
Do not forget that Sam Caligiuri had to lead a revolt to unseat the clique in control. Now it all is done in a more civilized manner, via paperwork. The taxpayers still have as little say as ever, except that instead of being shouted down, a Charter or ordinance clause will slap them down just as effectively.
A city, state or country budget is only a proportionately enlarged fiscal dilemma of any average American family. Expenses must be balanced by revenues and assets. For unforeseen necessities, there must be a source of credit. If in trouble, the first thing the head of the household ought to do, is to sharpen the pencil and list which “necessities” could be dispensed with. Obviously, the rest of the family would moan and groan.
Our national economy is being bled by government spending at the rate of trillions of dollars. As a city, we are almost a billion dollars in the red. Our only tangible assets are the taxpayers and our water system. Have you noted how the administration and legislators avoid the latter? Well, the water issue has not disappeared, it simply is too hot to handle. Which leaves us taxpayers on the chopping block. Let’s not forget that the housing boom has also artificially boosted our property values. Thus, next revaluation will be based on inflated numbers which will not reflect the market value. Consider all the above issues carefully before you cast your ballot on November 6th!